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Test Results Make Clear What Schools, Students Must Do

Last spring, 68,000 Washington state fourth-graders ventured into territory no student in our state has seen before. They took the first-ever tests designed to measure their skills and knowledge against the state’s new higher standards for student learning.

The results provide important information about where schools will need to focus their efforts to help increasing numbers of students meet the standards over time. Here’s where we are starting from:

Reading: 48 percent met the standard.

Writing: 42 percent met the standard.

Mathematics: 22 percent met the standard.

Listening: 62 percent met the standard.

To understand what these numbers represent, let’s start with what they’re not. We’re all familiar with the kind of scores that come from tests such as the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills or the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which include percentile rankings and national averages. Those kinds of tests show whether our students are doing better or worse than a comparison group of other students. On the new tests, it doesn’t matter whether a student reads or does math faster or better than another student or group of students. What matters is whether the student has the knowledge and skills in reading and math that are outlined in the state’s new academic standards.

The standards were set by teachers, parents, businesspeople and community leaders across the state to define what students should know and be able to do in core academic subjects to be prepared for the challenging and complex world that awaits them. About 270 of Washington’s 296 school districts and 80 private schools volunteered to administer this first set of tests to see where they will need to focus their efforts. Here are a few examples of what they found:

Many students had difficulty following instructions. In writing tasks such as “retell your favorite story” and “describe your perfect planet,” a large number turned in work that didn’t apply to the assignment. Instead of telling a story, some students wrote what might qualify as an editorial comment on a book jacket. Instead of describing a perfect planet, one student wrote about wrestling with aliens and being lost in space. No one is doubting the creativity of the children who took these tests.

In reading, students generally did better at comprehending fiction than they did at understanding nonfiction information, such as tables of content, indexes, charts and maps.

In mathematics, students experienced greatest difficulty with story problems and problems where they were asked to explain how they reached their answer.

The students who took these tests were trailblazers and their efforts will help chart the course for success. We usually teach students, then test them to measure what they’ve learned. This time, we tested them first so that teachers could more effectively align curriculum and teaching to help students reach the new standards.

The tests given last spring are part of a broader effort under way in our state to help students achieve at higher levels. The rapidly increasing complexity of our economy and our lives, as well as the growing diversity of our society and the challenges facing families, communities and our democracy, all require us to make schools much better than they’ve ever been before. Education is the indispensable strategy for building opportunity, prosperity and success in the next century.

Recognizing this, lawmakers passed our state’s landmark Education Reform Act in 1993. The law set in motion a process to clarify what students should be learning and is built around the following common sense approach to increasing student achievement:

Establish clear, challenging academic standards for what students ought to learn in core subjects;

Create tests to measure student progress against these standards at the fourth, seventh and 10th grades; and

Provide teachers and schools the information and resources they will need to help students meet the standards and develop a system for holding schools and school districts accountable for results.

In addition to multiple-choice questions, the new tests require students to apply their knowledge by writing descriptive essays, comparing information from different texts, using math skills to solve complex problems and explaining the steps they took to arrive at an answer. This will provide a better measure of a broader range of skills and will provide teachers and parents greater detail about where a student may need additional help.

Teachers in every classroom now have clear and consistent guidelines about what students should be learning and better ways of measuring student achievement. Decisions regarding how scores will be incorporated into school policies will be made by local schools, school districts and parents. Contact your local school for further information, or have a look at one of the following World Wide Web sites:



It is our great privilege and responsibility to ensure young people leave school with the knowledge and skills they’ll need to thrive in a complex and changing world. This task won’t be achieved overnight, but the new test results provide valuable insights to help chart the course.

Now, it’s our turn to take the test. Success will require greater parental and community participation with schools than ever before. We ask every Washington citizen to join in this critical effort by investing your time, your talent and your generous hearts to help make the schools in your community the very best they can be for all our students. Working together, we can meet this challenge.


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